Health & Medicine

Workshop designed to help families coping with dementia

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The passion seeps into social worker Marie Smart's voice as she discusses the lingering misconceptions about dementia.

"A lot of people think it is a normal part of aging," said Smart, a social worker at the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging at the University of Kentucky.

But it's not, necessarily, and if families can recognize the symptoms of dementia early, support is available. And with support, families are better able to create positive strategies for coping with the dementia patient's changing condition, said Smart, who helps between 400 and 500 families a year.

It's not always easy, but there is power in people realizing that others have the same struggles, she said.

"It is critical for families to come together as a group," she said.

That's one reason the center regularly partners with community groups to offer a day-long workshop for families caring for people with dementia about six times a year inside and outside of Fayette County, she said.

The next workshop is Dec. 12 at the Bluegrass Area Development District office in Lexington, and registration is ongoing. The cost is $10 per person, including lunch. In addition to the Sanders-Brown and Bluegrass ADD, the workshop is sponsored by the Alzheimer's Association and Baptist Neurological Center Memory Care Clinic.

The workshop begins with Dr. Greg Cooper, of Baptist Neurology Center, explaining the biological roots of the disease and the many disorders that fall under the term dementia.

That education often helps families to understand that physical changes in the brain are altering how a person functions. Understanding can make new or unusual behavior less frustrating for caregivers.

"It is not that they (the person with dementia) won't do something, they can't," said Smart.

Smart, who was worked with dementia patients since the early 1980s, said there is a much broader awareness of Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia than when she began her career.

Accurate representations are even slipping into popular culture, she said, citing the recently released documentary on the last tour of country singer Glen Campbell, who has Alzheimer's disease, called I'll Be Me. The tagline for the movie is: His music is legendary. His story is human. A group is working to bring the film to Lexington for a showing, Smart said.

In recent years, there have also been great strides made in drug therapies that slow the disease's progress and improve quality of life, she said. But there is still a message that a dementia diagnosis is just the beginning of a long, painful slough until the end of life.

"Many people, when they hear (a dementia diagnosis), hear 'oh my gosh, that's the end of the world,'" she said. But, she added, "We do have lots of ways to make life better."

To get that message out, people need to overcome their reluctance to talk openly about what they are dealing with, she said.

And with that, she said, "these family workshops help."